The tragic death of Cameron Boyce cast an unexpected cloud over “Descendants 3,” the latest edition of the Disney Channel musicals built around the kids of Disney heroes and villains. The show goes on, yielding an at-best serviceable addition to a promising concept that’s beginning to feel worn and tired.
The 2015 original started from a clever place, with the children of various Disney baddies getting a chance to leave the island where they’ve grown up and live among the gilded society occupied by the good guys and their progeny.
By now, that has grown into a somewhat unwieldy construct, encompassing not just marquee characters but plenty of more obscure ones, unless you were really curious what the pirate sidekick Smee’s tykes might be like.
The relationships have continued to progress, with Mal (Dove Cameron), the daughter of Maleficent, now very much a part of the kingdom of Auradon and seriously involved with its reigning prince, Ben (Mitchell Hope), the son of Beauty and the Beast.
Mal and her pals (played by Boyce, Sofia Carson and Booboo Stewart) are still trying to mainstream the Villain Kids and bring them over when a crisis strikes. That raises questions about old fears, breaking down barriers (in this case, the magical one that protects Auradon) and when they can be set aside.
That might sound like there’s a more serious message buried within the movie, but that magical “wall” has been central to the story from the beginning. Any loftier ambitions also dissipate pretty quickly in the race to squeeze in mostly uninspired musical numbers, possessing both the energy and substance usually associated with a parade at a Disney theme park.
To its credit, the story does flip the script a bit by having one of the hero kids – Audrey (Sarah Jeffery), the daughter of Princess Aurora – essentially turn to the dark side. If the early movies preached that evil isn’t destiny, the welcome point is being good isn’t either.
The story also receives a boost of mischievous whimsy from the Hercules villain Hades, played with a starched mop of hair and punk-rock eyeliner by Cheyenne Jackson, rekindling some (but not enough) of the silliness Kristin Chenoweth brought to the first movie.
Practically speaking “Descendants 3” arrives at an interesting time, as Disney aggressively mines its vaults both on the theatrical front and for its upcoming streaming service. It also continues its youth-oriented network’s streak of spinning ratings gold out of live-action musicals, after the “High School Musical” and “Teen Beach Movie” franchises.
Yet even with the talented cast and lavishly choreographed dance numbers courtesy of veteran director Kenny Ortega, “Descendants 3” plays like a production that has wrung all the mileage it can out of the formula.
Boyce death brought a somber note to what’s otherwise a cheerful romp for families with younger kids. But setting that aside, whatever magic “Descendants” initially possessed, this third time around the spell is pretty clearly fading.
“Descendants 3” premieres Aug. 2 at 8 p.m. on Disney Channel.